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How does your Garden grow?

The October issue sees a refreshed design for The Garden magazine – delivered ‘free’ to members of the Royal Horticultural Society. Robyn Bechelet meets editorial chief Chris Young to assess how the publishing team is delivering the society’s vision.

By Robyn Bechelet

How does your Garden grow?

Sitting in a meeting room in Peterborough, we look at proofs of The Garden’s future. Gone is the familiar white banner masthead, out goes the need for a square cover image.

This change is bold.

Yet, elegantly understated.

Inside, expansive double page features display glorious garden imagery, graceful grey key lines gently marshal captions, which indent just enough to breathe. It’s a heart-stopping feast to take in.

And, breathe, because thank goodness, the exquisite ‘plates’ remain, showcasing a single example plant in several hand-selected varieties.

When looking at any redesign now, have you noticed an immediate tendency to imagine it ‘under glass’? White, purer and polar, on tablet.

I spy new fonts, new content labelling, same intelligent and celebratory feel.

For the enthusiasts among us, The Garden is a favourite perennial. A premium-quality joy which never withers. It stands separate from other RHS information sources and appears always true to itself and its gigantic audience (425,115; ABC total, January to June 2017). These are people who paradoxically may receive the magazine through the post as part of their RHS membership but never read it. Chris puts an impassioned case on this point, clear that the job is to stop a busy reader in their tracks, entice them to put down their electronica so they can pull open The Garden’s plastic wrapper and get to the magazine inside.

Seeing the proofs on the table is to witness the harvest of team effort on the page.

But we all know it’s not just about the page.

Plans and digital

Having joined in 2005 with an already impressive CV, Chris Young became head of editorial after a restructure last summer. He remains editor of 12-issues-a-year: The Garden, while overseeing a team of 27 people making content across all platforms.

The content landscape Chris surveys extends to four issues of The Plantsman and The Orchid Review, which are subscription only; show guides and books, digital content, the list goes on. Content is detailed, the audience knowledgeable, and each issue is beautifully crafted.

Interestingly, the technology team works alongside the content team reflecting the need for close ties for digital content creation.

Free entry to the soon-to-be-five main RHS gardens is undeniably the main attraction for your £59 annual membership fee, or £44.25 by direct debit.

The Garden is, as Chris points out, the only monthly magazine for such a large membership audience in this field, where National Trust and English Heritage are players. Not available on the newsstand (“tried it”), The Garden’s playmate BBC Gardener’s World magazine is its nearest circulation rival weighing in with an ABC of 208,262 (January to June 2017).

For the non-visitors among the membership, The Garden magazine is a large part of the value they enjoy from joining up, as well as on-tap world-leading expert advice.

The RHS website is currently not behind a paywall.

Publishing strategy

So, why do we even need a magazine? It is all part of the communication route that the RHS has chosen to deliver its message which is “to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place”.

A supporting publishing strategy is simple, is it not? A fits-on-a-t-shirt, single, definable, measurable objective that everyone can get behind and understand. How does that look here?

Can you measure beauty? The RHS can and does measure engagement, which could be the action of enjoying beauty. In its RHS Vision document, the society lays out ten strategic objectives. Publishing strategy is directly aligned, and the document was not hiding away in a bottom drawer, it is clearly front and central.

To ‘nutshell’ it, Number 1 on the list is: “To be known, loved and trusted as the charity for all gardeners”. Readers aren’t just buying a subscription, they are helping a good cause.

All organisational activity supports the ten commandments which boil down to: Safeguard and advance the science, art and practice of horticulture for the benefit of future generations; transform communities; create world-leading horticulture; a voice for gardeners; delight customers; be a great place to work; have efficient business practices that deliver maximum income; make horticulture a career to be proud of.

The publishing product set has widened conjuring more opportunities to inspire gardeners and the outsourced books have been folded back in to the Peterborough publishing HQ for consistency and efficiency.

‘Tone’ is a word that comes up over and over in our conversation and this is reassuring; every word must be right for the readership and the way they expect to be spoken to. An advantage of in-house publishing is consistency, custodianship while standing side by side with an army of colleagues who are also digging for the same victory. A longstanding relationship with the BBC adds to the charity’s gravitas and public affection – witness ‘Chelsea’ coverage.

There is a vital responsibility to hand down the “right way” of doing things. It becomes “instinctive”. Although Chris says that the society is looking to outsource publishing “all the time”.

In-house vs outsourced

In-house has its obvious advantages especially when extending into new content treatments – the jumping off point is well understood within the organisation. No having to explain what you mean because everyone already eats, sleeps and breathes it.

For example: online video advice for pruning is a help for both the novice and the once-a-year pruner, so it is a natural fit for the RHS website.

Surely everyone would enjoy a drone’s eye view of some of the world’s best gardens which the RHS handily owns. Yet all this sounds expensive and it remains to be seen where this fits.

Thankfully, digital analytics enlighten the team on what consumers like to watch, so effort is invested accordingly. However, this is not a world of creative constriction – we are not just feeding you the content we know you’ll like. Chris is firm on that and pulls towards “serendipity” as a delightful source of new content ideas. Otherwise where will the brave new vistas come from?

The fact that the magazine is owned by the Royal Horticultural Society can be an intimidating thought in itself for some members, particularly newbies who may not get best value if they are too embarrassed to ask for expert advice – which is all part of the offering.

With its heritage and responsibilities to keep accurate records in a world where plants can seemingly change their names at the same frequency as the wind veers, what to archive? Storage has a cost. However, on the upside, much content is evergreen so no need to keep remaking how-to guides. Prioritising the making of them will, I suggest, be part of joining the parts and can be gleaned from reader surveys and analytics.

Chris is clear that video is very much part of the future but not necessarily keeping all the terabytes of it.

Editorial review

He says: “a full editorial review is planned for next year”, this gives the organisational structure, put in place last year, time to bed in. Observations can be brought to the table after seeing the four seasons through at least once and watching what grows. Sensible.

Trials are what the RHS does brilliantly, awarding merit to the best on offer, the same approach can be used to test digital consumption patterns and the appetite for a page turner (surely an eco winner).

Clearly, dependency on other parts of the RHS is both a strength and potential weakness of the membership offering. The look of the gardens and success of show days can be in the lap of the weather gods too.

However, gardeners are, by nature, an optimistic lot, expecting next year to be better than the last. And yet, with highest ever membership – a reach-for-the-sky build of 100,000 members in the last four years – is a slump on the horizon?

Chris: “No.”

With £160 million of projects to be delivered by the RHS over the coming decade, there will be much progress to report to members via The Garden where, if it is right to do so, ta-dah moments will be revealed ahead of the pack, which in this case is the Telegraph’s Saturday Gardening section.

The Garden magazine has always been about making the most of your membership; detailing events at gardens is a content staple. Developments in the area of showing other-than-our-own great gardens, continuation in showcasing news of RHS trial-winning plants and the writings of well-loved columnists like Roy Lancaster, bring extras above and beyond.

The RHS is an organisation with an open plan. Chris’s aligned business cases for resources have, he said, been accepted. Working to flatplan from the outset each month to achieve the brand vision through the pages.

This informal Autumn audit of the magazine, brand strategy and membership deal, finds the offering in good health and ready to proudly face the years ahead.

Challenges lie in the area of learning right content treatments for each audience segment and using appropriate channels for consumers who range from novice to expert and who may or may not be an RHS garden visitor. Some members give voice on Twitter while others feedback via pen and paper so there is plenty of feedback going.

What of the risk that readers tire of year-on-year similar content?

Chris emphasises that the team “try very hard to find different plants to feature on the cover”, and with only twelve a year, this can be a challenge because for the gardener, the month of May may well be about anticipating the wonder of wisteria.

Ah but, a hero garden, not necessarily one owned by the RHS, looks to be taking over this issue’s cover in place of a single specimen.

The Garden’s horizon widens.